Despite humble beginnings Colin Powell led a very accomplished life.
Colin Luther Powell was born in The Bronx, NYC on April 5, 1937. His parents were first-generation immigrants from the island of Jamaica of mixed Scottish and African heritage. His father, Luther, worked as a shipping clerk, and his mother, Maud, was a seamstress. He attended NYC public schools and graduated from City College of NY with a degree in geology. He described himself as a “C” student (probably due to a lack of motivation rather than intelligence). In 1971 He followed up with an MBA from GW University.
As a youngster one of his jobs was in a local furniture store, which was owned by Eastern European Jews. As the story goes he picked up bits of Yiddish from the employees and customers, and, later in life, at one point he shocked a Jewish reporter by addressing him in Yiddish. In addition, he served as a “Shabbos goy,” one who performed certain tasks, such as lighting the stove, for Orthodox Jews who were forbidden to do so on the Sabbath.
In college he joined ROTC and upon graduation was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the Army. In a long and distinguished military career (35 years) he rose through the ranks to become a four-star general and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, only the 12th person to hold that office. Moreover, he was a diplomat and a statesman, serving as national security advisor and Secretary of State. Finally, in 2008 he was in the conversation as a GOP candidate for the vice presidency under John McCain. Although he declined to run his endorsement was actively sought after by both political parties. In the 2016 election he received three electoral votes (Washington Sate) even though he was not on the ballot. In my opinion, his career was marred by one significant “blip,” which I will described below.
In the eyes of some, there was one significant blemish on his career – his speech at the UN in support of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. At the time, the decision was very controversial. The George W. Bush administration justified the invasion based on intelligence reports, later determined to be inaccurate, if not intentionally misleading, that Iraq possessed “weapons of mass destruction.” Powell, as Secretary of State, gave the aforementioned speech at the UN in which he attempted to justify the invasion, When no such weapons were ever found his reputation “took a big hit.” In 2005 he was forced to resign.
Later, Powell admitted that his speech had contained various “inaccuracies.” Furthermore, he explained that he had been strongly in favor of trying diplomatic measures before resorting to an invasion. In point of fact, he revealed that he spent hours with Bush outlining the ill-advised consequences of “going into an Arab country and becoming the occupiers.” Bush was not swayed. Ultimately, Powell told Bush that he would respect and support whatever decision he made, and he did. The implication is that he gave the speech as a “good soldier” who was following the dictates of his boss. Years later, Powell disclosed that VP Dick Cheney had told him “you’ve got high poll ratings; you can afford to lose a few points.”
During his career Powell received innumerable awards and decorations, such as the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, and the Presidential Citizens Medal.
Powell passed away on October 18, 2021 from COVID-19-related complications and multiple myeloma, which compromised his immune system. Despite his one above-described “blip” he remained a hero to many. My personal opinion is that the one “blip” should not override all the good Powell did in his life as a military leader, diplomat and statesman, particularly since he was operating as a loyal subordinate who was “taking one for the team.” Additionally, I think he would have made a good president.